Culinary Sleuth

Everything You Always Wanted
to Know About Cranberries

with Recipes

by Lynn Kerrigan


Martha Stewart painstakingly strings hers 'round a Christmas tree. Not one, but two American museums exist that are devoted to their history. There's even strong evidence that eating them or drinking their juice may help prevent or cure urinary tract infections. Finally, these tart, shiny, scarlet gems—sauced, jellied or relished—are an intrinsic part of traditional holiday feasts.

Cranberries were first dubbed "crane berries" because cranes tramping through cranberry bogs knew a good thing when they saw it. They gobbled up and fed on the luscious fruit. Cranberries were also once called bounce-berries because of the way the ripe fruit jumps if dropped.

Cranberry Bog

Photo: Harvesting Cranberries

They were probably first used as a food by Native American Indians. A food staple called pemmican provided basic sustenance to Native Americans during long, harsh winters. Pemmican is actually an early, regional form of jerky—preserved dried meat. Often referred to as a "trail cake," pemmican was the perfect food for the traveler as well. It was made by pounding salt-dried venison or other game with cranberries (or other available berries) and melted fat (suet). This combination formed a perfect and natural preservative. The mixture was then shaped into coils and stored in animal skins until needed.

Pemmican was practical to the Indian way of life, but American colonists found Native American foods and foodways strange and unsophisticated. However, regional foods and unfamiliar ingredients were incorporated into the settler's diets—mostly from necessity. Drawing from the cornucopia of local and later, imported ingredients, colonial cooks transformed the simple foods of the northeast Indians into more complex dishes that became New England trademarks.

The first American "Thanksgiving," a feast and fete to Chief Massasoit and his tribe may have featured cornmeal porridge sweetened with maple syrup and dotted with cranberries. Not only did Native Americans teach European settlers to enjoy the wild turkey meat, they also showed them that the cranberry's tart nature could be sweetened by boiling and adding maple syrup. This most likely inspired the ultimate creation of cranberry sauce as colonists adopted and adapted this piquant fruit into their own recipes and tastes.

It's a mystery how cranberry sauce became a staple accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. At my house it's a necessity at Christmas dinner as well. It was an ordinary accompaniment to meat in every colonial home. By the late eighteenth century an average midday colonial meal included cranberries in some form—mostly sauced. Perhaps it was on everyone's table because it was so plentiful. Since the marsh waters of Cape Cod are a prime source of this native wetland berry, the colonists had easy and abundant access to their harvest. Cranberries were soon used to flavor hearth baked breads and to "put up" preserves.

Up until last year my family and I thought cranberry sauce came only jellied and shaped like a can. It's the only kind we'd ever tasted. But my niece brought a jar of homemade sauce to our annual holiday dinner and we all took turns raving and ranting about what a delight "real" cranberry sauce was. It's so simple to prepare and so different from the commercial variety, we wondered how it had ever escaped our attention. Try it. After making your own, you'll never again squeeze cranberry sauce from a round tin.



Culinary Sleuth

A Trio of Cranberry Recipes
More Cranberry Recipes

(Also visit our main Thanksgiving Recipes page)


Copyright © 1998, Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.


This page created 1998 and modified February 2007